Pierre Rouvier, design by Charles Ange Boily, engraver, Soyez libres et citoyens. Engraving, 147 by 96 mm. (image).
Menil Collection, Houston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In a lush tropical setting, a large group of nearly naked slaves gathers before a sumptuously robed woman. An apparition from the billowing clouds of heaven, she wears a regal crown and a mantle bearing the fleur-de-lis device of the French Bourbon dynasty. This imposing personification of monarchy looks down compassionately at the foremost member of the group, who kneels unchained before her in a supplicating posture. Her left hand is held over him in a magnanimous gesture of liberation while she clasps his upraised hands in the other.

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He returns her gaze with a look of gratitude mixed with expectancy. Behind him a woman with a child on her back remains on both knees, her limbs still bound in chains. Several other slaves look toward the image of benevolence standing over them with the same imploring gaze. Under the dramatic tableau appear the enjoining words: Soyez Libres et Citoyens (“Be Free and Citizens”).

This elaborate, though deceptive vision of freedom from the misery of bondage appeared as the frontispiece to a lengthy, two-volume discourse on the evils of slavery, in particular the slave trade. It was published in 1789 by the French Protestant theologian and abolitionist Benjamin-Sigismond Frossard. Appearing on the eve of the French Revolution, La cause des esclaves nègres et des habitans de la Guinée (The Cause of the Black Slaves and the Inhabitants of Guinea) heralded the emergence of the organized anti-slavery movement in France.

Frossard’s rationally argued analysis of the evils of slavery did not appear in a vacuum. He belonged to the Société des Amis des Noirs, or Society of the Friends of the Blacks, the first organization in France to formally oppose the slave trade. It had been founded by an elite group of aristocrats and scholars in 1788 at the dawn of the French Revolution.

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During its brief but intense existence, the société devoted itself to the eradication of the trade by international agreement. It took its inspiration, if not its organization and strategy, from the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Founded in London by staunch anti-slavery opponents such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, the society soon emerged as a popular movement, with a membership numbering in the thousands.

To promote their cause, these British abolitionists adopted the iconic motif of a kneeling black slave in right profile, freed of his shackles. Below the image ran the motto: “Am I not a man and a brother?” The emblem soon became an extremely effective weapon against the slave trade both in Britain and the United States. The inclusive tone of the motto reflected, as well, the ultimate commitment of the organization to the liberation of those already in bondage. The société soon took up the same device, employing it as visual rhetoric on the cover of its numerous pamphlets.

While not published directly under the aegis of the société, Frossard’s book encapsulated some of its major anti-slavery positions. He tempers his argument for emancipation with a pragmatic concern for the stability of the nation’s lucrative overseas colonies. As he argues in his text, the rejection of slavery should harm “neither [the interests] of the colonies nor of the colonists.” A crucial part of this conditional commitment to the abolition of slavery required the implementation of gradual emancipation, by which slaves would be freed only in stages over two or even three generations.

In contrast with the limited scope of reform adumbrated by the treatise, the frontispiece for La cause des esclaves nègres presents a radically different vision of the role of the French state on behalf of enslaved Africans. The adoption of the kneeling male figure, now appearing in left profile and set in a more explicit context, represents the transformation of this iconic image beyond the original intentions of the société.

Its title makes abundantly clear the expectation of both emancipation and citizenship for the slaves, thus acknowledging their essential status as human beings. The image establishes the source of its agency as the old regime of the French royal state, guided by the animating principle of Christian charity.

Frossard’s well-intended faith in the role of divine grace in the liberation of the slaves rings hollow in the face of reality. However inspiring it may appear in this print, the enfeebled French monarchy was incapable of redressing the needs of the colonies. In 1794, five years after the publication of La cause des esclaves nègres, the tumultuous rejection of the old order by the republican faction of the French Revolution would instead officially decree an end to both the slave trade and slavery itself throughout France and its overseas colonies.

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In 1799, just several years after slavery was abolished during the revolution, Napoleon cynically reinstated the institution in a bid to restore the fiscal well-being of the nation. After a tumultuous struggle against the whims of subsequent regimes and the constant resistance of the pro-slavery faction, bondage in the French colonies was abolished once and for all in 1848. As was the case with Frossard and the société, the power of images continued to play a key role in the efforts of their successors.

The supplicant posture of the kneeling slave and his companions in the print may seem paternalistic and demeaning today, since it denies any self-agency of the slave in the acquisition of his freedom. For the late 18th century, however, the primary objective was to stress the human face of these victims of bondage. At the dawn of the age of mass media and public consciousness-raising, slavery as a human issue had just entered the realm of European moral awareness. The visual presentation of a black slave as a flesh-and-blood human being would arouse a unique and powerful reaction among the increasing numbers of concerned people to whom these causes were addressed.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.